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Why I Want My Students to Read Jared Diamond’s Latest Blockbuster, Part 2

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In my last post, I defended mega-pundit Jared Diamond against his critics, especially social scientists who imply that a book may be scholarly or a bestseller but not both. Bullshit. Envy more than genuine scholarly disagreement seems to underpin much of the resentment toward Diamond. Anthropologists and other investigators of human behavior should applaud Diamond, not denigrate him, for showing that popular appeal and scholarly rigor are compatible.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t question Diamond’s propositions about humanity. The chief value of his books—like those of Steven Pinker, Edward Wilson, Francis Fukuyama and other popular scientific synthesizers (all of whom I’ve criticized)—is that they provoke informed debate about major issues facing us: What are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Where do we want to go?

I’m not crazy, for example, about Diamond’s discussion of pre-state warfare in The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? He presents a kind of soft version of the claim of Richard Wrangham, Steven LeBlanc, Pinker and Wilson—the Harvard Hawks—that war was an affliction of pre-state societies that civilization helped to solve. As I have pointed out on this blog and in The End of War, the evidence for this thesis is flimsy; according to the archaeological record, lethal group violence dates back only about 10,000 years, making warfare far more recent than art, music, religion and other cultural inventions.

And yet Diamond’s discussion of war, in spite of my quibbles, is intelligent, informed, interesting. The same is true of his analysis of societies’ treatment of the elderly. Diamond devotes a chunk of World Until Yesterday to this subject, and he also focused on it when he spoke at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, last Friday.

The topic is urgent, given that throughout the industrialized world birth rates are falling while people are living longer. As a result, in the U.S. and other first-world nations, the elderly are the fastest-growing section of the population. “We have more old people and fewer young people than ever,” Diamond says.

Some traditional societies, Diamond notes, venerate the aged. In rural Fiji, for example, old people live with and are cherished by their children, who may even pre-chew food for their toothless parents. Diamond quotes a Fijian acquaintance who was “outraged that many old people are sent to retirement homes where they are visited only occasionally by their children. He burst out accusingly, ‘You throw away your old people and your own parents.’”

Diamond clearly sympathizes with this viewpoint. He criticizes the preference of companies for young job candidates; mandatory retirement rules, which are especially common in Europe; and a medical practice called age-based allocation of resources, in which hospitals give young patients priority over the old. He deplores the paucity of grey-haired, wrinkled actors in ads for soft drinks, beer and cars. “Instead, pictures of old people are used to sell adult diapers, arthritis drugs and retirement plans.”

Listing these indignities, the 75-year-old Diamond sometimes sounds like, well, a grumpy old man. He acknowledges that older people today “enjoy on the average much longer lives, far better health, far more recreational opportunities and far less grief from deaths of their children than at any previous time in human history.” Moreover, living in a nursing home is surely preferable (isn’t it?) to being abandoned, pushed off a cliff or buried alive, the fate of the old and infirm among many tribal societies.

Diamond loves the fact that in some illiterate societies the elderly served as valuable sources of information about rare events. He describes a Southwest Pacific island in which cyclones periodically wiped out crops and other domesticated food sources. After such disasters the young relied on old people to tell them which wild plants were edible. Today, Diamond points out, the young can learn so much from books and the internet that they don’t need the memories of elders. But that’s a good thing, right?

Diamond’s recommendations for improving the lives of the aged are also anti-climactic. He proposes that the elderly visit schools to tell students about wars, depressions and other historical events that they have witnessed first-hand. Grandparents could also stay busy taking care of their childrens’ children, replacing costly, unreliable babysitters and daycare centers. Reading this section I thought, What if grandparents don’t want to talk to bored, sullen teenagers or take care of squalling, unruly toddlers?

Diamond, to his credit, doesn’t pretend that his suggestions “will solve this huge problem” of aging. His goal is not to solve all of our enormous social problems but to draw our attention to them and challenge us to find better solutions. He succeeds. What more can you ask of a social scientist?

Photo credit: UCLA.

Postscript: In response to my two columns on Jared Diamond’s new book, I received the letter below from Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, an international tribal-rights organization. Corry also critiqued The World Until Yesterday in a column in The Daily Beast. Like Corry, I disagree with Diamond’s broad claims about tribal warfare, especially before the origin of states. But I stand by my assertion that Diamond’s treatment of tribal societies is far more subtle and respectful than Corry, Wade Davis and other critics claim. John Horgan

To the Editor: Jared Diamond, in his new book, The World Until Yesterday, makes two erroneous assertions which, if they go unchallenged, will set back by several decades the movement to secure for the world’s 150 million tribal people the right to exist, and be themselves, in the 21st Century.

The first, no less wrong for being a common prejudice, is that today’s tribal people are in effect living fossils, the last vestiges of human society as it once was. The obvious endpoint to this argument is that today’s tribes will in the end ‘evolve’, and ‘progress’, in the way everyone else has. This tired notion has been debunked by experts for years.

The second, and this one’s received remarkably little publicity, is that tribal people engage in constant warfare, and need the benevolent hand of the state to stop them killing each other. This will raise a hollow laugh in West Papua, an area Mr. Diamond knows well, where 100,000 Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian authorities since 1963.

If you think all this sounds a bit like the arguments put forward by missionaries, explorers and colonial governments from the 16th Century onwards, to justify the ‘pacification’ and conquest of ‘savages’ in far-off lands, you’re right.  And it’s just as harmful now as it was then.

Stephen Corry, Director, Survival International, San Francisco, CA

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. diandted 4:07 pm 01/22/2013

    I’m what’s considered an old fart (70) and I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about the issues raised by Mssrs Horgan and Diamond. I’m a Pediatrician and delight in the opportunity to share time, insight, or,indeed, anything with my grandchildren ( and soon great grands). There are several roadblocks to this worthy effort. Firstly, my wife has had all of little ones she can handle for this lifetime. Secondly, the parents of my daughter in law verbalize expressions to their daughter such as “You’re going to leave your kids alone with a ‘MAN’”!!!! This essentially destroys any chance for “alone time” with my grandchildren. Another problem I foresee for the rising generation is the lack of Marriage in this and other societies until a time when fertility is deminished or not possible. As the dad of 7, the joys of parenthood cannot be overstated. This fact is not currently a priority to most young adults today. The folks in Korea, Japan, China, and even some European countries who study sociology and population dynamics have written stuff that scares the h**l out of me. As far as Diamond’s concern about the problems of aging are really silly. Any senior who has time on his or her hands has myriad paid and unpaid vocations, avocations, and volunteer opportunities from which to choose. Obviously, Mr. Diamond has chosen curmudgeonry for his occupation in his 8th decade!!

    Edmund Doering M.D.
    Jupiter, FL

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  2. 2. syzygyygyzys 4:48 pm 01/22/2013

    Well said, Dr. Doering. I haven’t felt that I needed advice on how to keep busy.

    I’m 66 and about to build the first manufacturing plant of my own. Well… I’ll watch other people build it with my supervision. Retirement has no appeal.

    I have had concerns about population dynamics since I began to consider the problem about 50 years ago. By some measures, it seems the living conditions for human beings today as we approach 7 billion, are better than they were at 4+ billion. That doesn’t mean huge problems aren’t coming though. It will be interesting to see how it works out.

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  3. 3. rugeirn 12:02 pm 01/23/2013

    Remember Gulliver’s Travels? The visit to Luggnagg? the Struldbrugs? The ones who are immortal, doomed to become more and more decrepit but never die?

    We seem to think that’s a good thing.

    I’ve seen retirement homes and assisted living facilities as they are lived in by people I know well. Pretty upscale ones, too, not the horror-story ones.

    I have no plans to live like that.

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  4. 4. IndyCA35 12:43 pm 01/23/2013

    War did not start 10,000 years ago. Chimpanzees engage in organized warfare against other groups of chimps. the origin of warfare is therefore almost certainly before the human-chimp split, or older than 4,000,000 years ago.

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